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Naturalist Dian Fossey Slain at Camp in Rwanda : American Was Expert on Mountain Gorillas; Assailants Hunted

December 29, 1985|From Times Wire Services

NAIROBI, Kenya — Dian Fossey, an American naturalist who studied and lived among Rwanda's rare mountain gorillas for nearly two decades, was killed at her forest camp by unknown assailants, Rwandese officials reported Saturday.

Rwandese diplomat Gregoire Karambizi said in Nairobi that the killing of the well-known gorilla expert was reported Saturday morning on state-run Radio Rwanda. Officials at the radio station in Kigali, the capital, said Fossey was killed two days earlier in an attack at her Karisoke Research Center, but no other details were known.

The radio station said there had been no arrests and that an investigation was continuing. Friends here speculated that she may have been murdered by the poachers she fought against for so long.

Fossey, 53, a native of San Francisco, began studying the mountain gorillas in 1967 and since then--through magazine articles, television programs and a 1983 book --"Gorillas in the Mist"--led a crusade to protect the rare species from poachers, who hunt them to make souvenirs of their heads and hands or capture young animals to sell to zoos.

Lived in Metal Cottage

She referred to the animals as "her" gorillas, learned to mimic their sounds and even built a cemetery for them next to the small corrugated metal cottage where she lived near the top of 12,175-foot Mt. Visoke in Volcanoes National Park.

Fossey also said she believed gorillas to be superior to humans in some respects.

"Gorillas are almost altruistic in nature," she once said. "There's very little if any 'me-itis.' When I get back to civilization I'm always appalled by 'me, me, me.' "

"You take these fine, regal animals," she continued. "How many (human) fathers have the same sense of paternity? How many human mothers are more caring? The family structure is unbelievably strong."

The mountainous rain forests straddling Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda are the last stronghold of the mountain gorilla, which can grow to 6 feet and weigh 400 pounds or more. Only about 240 are left in the wild.

Studied in California

Fossey attended UC Davis and San Jose State in California before becoming a physical therapist. For another year she was director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair Crippled Children's Hospital in Louisville, Ky.

She came to Central Africa at the suggestion of the late paleontologist Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey. It was he who recommended she receive funding from the National Geographic Society for long-term study of gorillas. Fossey's work was also supported by her U.S.-based foundation, the Digit Fund, named for one of her beloved gorillas.

She earned a doctorate in zoology from Cambridge University and was a visiting associate professor at Cornell University in 1981, teaching neurobiology and animal behavior.

"What is important is that she was the first to 'habituate' gorillas" to the presence of humans, said Belgian ecologist Alain Monfort, an adviser to the Rwandan Park Service. "Before that, people thought gorillas were highly dangerous," Monfort said.

But the naturalist's sometimes- eccentric behavior irritated both the Rwandan government and the international wildlife community.

Radical Policies

In an interview at her camp in May, one of the last she gave, Fossey defended her policy of encouraging the apes to fear black Africans because nearly all poachers were black. She conceded that the policy could be branded as "racist."

The zoologist also advocated what she called "active conservation," which she said is continuous anti-poaching surveillance. She said that only her patrols adequately protected the apes.

"Active conservation involves simply going out into the forest, on foot, day after day after day, attempting to capture poachers, killing--regretfully--poacher dogs, which spread rabies within the park, and cutting down traps," Fossey said.

Fossey said there were only 50 to 80 poachers and "they can be captured and subjected to imprisonment."

Painted a Cow

Park officials said she once shot over the head of a gorilla-watching West German who came near a group of apes she was observing. She also was seen spray-painting an English expletive on a cow that strayed into the park, in northern Rwanda near the Zaire and Uganda borders.

In 1980, Fossey was questioned by a local magistrate for allegedly taking hostage the small daughter of a Rwandan woman she accused of abducting a baby gorilla. She reportedly offered the suspected poacher an exchange.

"Dian was reprimanded by the magistrate but not punished because she took such good care of the child," recalls Monfort. "The girl cried and said, 'I prefer to stay with Dian.' " But she was returned to her parents, he said.

'I Have No Friends'

Fossey, a chain-smoker even though she sufferred from emphysema, once told an interviewer: "I have no friends. The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people."

For Fossey, home was obviously the jungle. She once described resting alone one day at 10,980 feet, gazing for more than an hour, knowing that there was not another human within five miles in any direction. "It was the most peaceful, extraordinary feeling," she said. "I wish I could put it in a bottle to take to the gray-faced people in London or New York. It would have to make them smile. It is so magical."

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